Seizures ‑ A Primer

by Judy Johnstone; Goldstone Kennels

Reprinted from Giant Steps © March-April 1993

Recently, I was reminded that even well‑meaning and knowledgeable people can have false impressions about seizures. Many times, they are unaware of exactly what constitutes a seizure. In this article, I will attempt to outline the basic types of seizures and their causes. Of necessity, this will be only a very brief overview. Your veterinarian can answer any questions that may arise, I caution you that I am not a veterinarian, and my information is what I have gathered from extensive reading, and hopefully a reasonably intelligent understanding of that material. For information on recommended reading material, please contact me or your veterinarian.

There are two classifications of seizures, symptomatic and idiopathic. The symptomatic seizures are an indication that other problems exist. Examples of these problems are trauma, hypoglycemia, liver disease, electrolyte disturbances, impaired circulation, and renal disease. Idiopathic seizures are those for which no diagnostic cause can be found ‑ those which are truly epilepsy. This one can only be definitively diagnosed at autopsy.

The types of seizures are as follows:

Partial‑ These usually have an acquired cause and are associated with some abnormality of movement or function localized to a specific part of the body such as involuntary movement of an extremity, turning the head, facial twitches, etc.

Generalized ‑ These are bilateral and are associated with loss of consciousness, generalized motor dysfunction that is bilateral and symmetrical, and sometimes by autonomic disturbances including urination and defecation.

Behavioral ‑ Also called complex partial seizures. These manifest themselves as bizarre or complex behaviors that are repeated during each seizure. They are characterized by alterations of thought, perception, or emotion, and can manifest themselves as lip‑smacking, "chewing", "fly‑chasing", cowering, or hiding in otherwise normal animals under normal circumstances. Other behaviors that might be attributed to this type may include fits or rage, aggression, screaming, crying, blindness, excessive salivation, and floor‑licking. These seizures are not usually associated with loss of consciousness, although lack of awareness may be noted.

Petitmal ‑ These are called "absence seizures" in humans. Although they have been induced in cats, cases of this type occurring spontaneously have not been observed in animals.

Myoclonus ‑ These are characterized by sudden massive jerks of most muscle groups, and are extremely rare in dogs.

 The components of the seizure are as follows:

Prodrome ‑ This stage is characterized by a change in mood or behavior. Except for a change in behavior, it is impossible to say with certainty that animals experience a prodrome.

Aura ‑ This signals the beginning of the seizure. It is characterized by behaviors such as restlessness, nervousness, whining, trembling, salivation, affection, wandering, hiding, or apprehension. This stage may last from several seconds to several days and may go unnoticed.

Ictus ‑This is the seizure stage. In the generalized type it is characterized by a sudden increase in tone of all muscle groups. The dog then falls, and the rhythmic or clonic phase follows. It typically lasts from one to three minutes.

Postictus ‑ This may be the only or most significant sign of a seizure. Confusion, disorientation, salivation, pacing, wandering, restlessness, viciousness, unresponsiveness, and transient blindness may be seen. This stage lasts for several minutes to several days, during which the animal is conscious but not functional, and may go unnoticed.

What does all this mean? It means that most of us associate seizures with only the generalized form. The behavioral indications may have been a real eye‑opener for you. Also, if you read carefully, you noticed repeated "may not be noticed" statements. This means that since our dogs for the most part do not live attached to monitors and we do not stay awake twenty‑four hours each day watching them, the best any of us can say is that our dogs appear to be seizure‑free.

The wide variety of ages at which owners have first reported a seizure activity lead us to wonder if indeed all seizure activity is noticed, as it is simply impossible to observe every dog every minute of every day.

Conventional wisdom says that seizure activity is noted after exercise, during storms or other times of stress, etc., yet I have a friend who has a Springer who only has seizures at night while sleeping on the bed, or while being in a crate during the day while my friend is at work. (She's crated during the day because the other dogs attack her during her seizures. They get crated at night while she sleeps loose.) This dog is a tracking dog (stress) and a field dog (great excitement) and neither of these trigger seizures.

The summary of this is that if your dog exhibits unusual behavior at fairly consistent intervals CHECK IT OUT!! It may be nothing, it could be an illness‑induced problem, or it could be epilepsy. Whatever it is, please do not remain silent. Consult with the breeder of the dog, tell owners of any offspring or siblings, and above all do NOT use it to criticize others, nor should you "take it personally". Only by an open and honest sharing of information can we begin to eliminate this unfortunate problem from our lovely dogs.

(Editorís note: Judy Johnstone of Goldstone Kennels is a breeder of Belgian Trevurens and Belgian Sheepdogs. We thank her for this article.)

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